Don't let the Steelers record fool you: They are a deeply flawed team, and it's their own fault

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers are among the NFL’s most accomplished and revered franchises in its long history. From the days of the mighty Steel Curtain defenses of the ’70s to the high-flying offenses of the 2010s, the Steelers have almost always been relevant if not dominant. They have been defined by their commitment to the “Steeler way”, which can be best summed up by their remarkable coaching consistency. 

Starting with Chuck Noll in 1969 and running to their current coach Mike Tomlin this season, the Steelers have employed just three head coaches over the last 54 years. Sandwiched between the aforementioned Noll and Tomlin was Bill Cowher, who patrolled the sidelines for 15 years. That level of loyalty is unprecedented in a sport with as much parity as the modern NFL has. 

Is that level of loyalty a positive in a league that is constantly evolving? It’s worked for them for most of the last 50 years, but the past few seasons have really begun to test the limits of the Steelers resistance to change. For the first time in what feels like forever in NFL terms, the Steelers don’t have a true identity. Their defense is good, but not elite. Their offense is an unmitigated disaster in just about every way imaginable. 

Don’t let their 4-2 record fool you, this team is broken. How did they get here? Can they turn things around before they finally bottom out? If so, what needs to happen for this team to find itself again? Those are all complex questions to answer, but let’s start with the people making the big decisions for this team.

Steelers HC Mike Tomlin can’t let go of the past

As I previously mentioned, no other NFL franchise boasts the consistency at the head coach position that the Steelers have enjoyed for over 50 years. No matter the circumstances or how the team was constructed, there was always a level of comfort in knowing that the coach wasn’t the issue.

While some in the Steelers fandom have at one point called for the firing of all three, Noll, Cowher, and Tomlin all managed to hang around for at least 15 years. You don’t do that even for the Steelers without being a high-level coach.

This season, fans seem more prepared to move on from Mike Tomlin than ever before. Usually, at least in my opinion, it has been hard to justify looking to move on from Tomlin considering his ability to get the most out of his players. He is the gold standard when it comes to being a player's coach, and it helps raise the floor of the team significantly. His well-documented 16-season winning streak is a testament to his ability to never allow his team to truly bottom out.

As impressive as that streak is, however, there is no denying the lack of overall results over the past decade. Gone are the days of AFC Championship appearances and Super Bowl titles, now being replaced by 9-8 seasons and first-round playoff exits.

The Steelers haven’t won a playoff game since the 2016 season and have only made the playoffs three times since then. Is that all on Tomlin? Of course not. But his insistence on trying to win with defense and a methodical offense is just not a fit for the modern game.

From Tommy Jaggi, editor of Still Curtain: "The Pittsburgh Steelers have a backward philosophy when it comes to winning. Gone are the days when teams can expect to limit risks on offense and play good defense to get themselves into championship contention. This approach might be good enough for a playoff berth and a winning record, but it's not the formula for true success."

The only championship-level teams Tomlin has been a part of have had their identity formed around the defensive side of the ball. When the dominant defensive core of the late 2000s/early 2010s began to age or retire, he leaned on Ben Roethlisberger and the Killer B’s on offense. While they were fun to watch, they were more flash than substance. I think that is part of why he refuses to adapt to the way the game is played in 2023, but it could be his downfall.

Steelers Matt Canada is a symptom, not the disease

I could spend all day talking about all the ways that Matt Canada is bad at his job. You could scroll for hours on social media trying to get through all the #FireMattCanada posts. Everyone except for the Steelers seems to know this guy stinks. So why is he still around after 2+ awful seasons as the Steelers OC? Well, it’s just how the Steelers do things.

That’s the answer you get from most people when it’s debated, but it’s more than that. The Steelers have unwavering confidence in their ability to evaluate their players and coaches. It’s never “this individual coach or player is the problem,” it’s “we all have to do better.” I’m not just talking about what is said publicly, because, of course, they aren’t going to throw anyone under the bus. I really do think that they have that mentality internally as well.

They hire guys, give them their entire contract to show what they have, and move on if the results aren’t there. No early firings, no big sweeping changes. While some fan bases dream of that level of patience and consistency, there is a balance missing from the Steelers' approach. You don’t want to change just for change's sake, but you also want to be realistic about your players and coaches. 

From Andrew Falce, contributor for Still Curtain: “Consistent coaches, schemes, and players are fine when you are yielding good results. Blowing everything up at the first sign of resistance is not wise. Consistency for consistency's sake is also a bad move though. We keep the same mediocre coaching staff, commit ourselves to a safe game plan, and never make huge changes because we are afraid of the negative. When you haven't won a playoff game since 2016, you need some notable changes. At least more notable than an extra padded practice.”

The bottom line is that the Steelers have become complacent. They would rather make no changes than risk making the wrong ones. Just look at how they have handled their rookie class this season. You could make a very good argument that their best offensive tackle, cornerback, and interior defender are all rookies who don’t get starting snaps. 

Broderick Jones had an impressive starting debut but ended up back on the bench. Joey Porter Jr has only this past game against the Rams played more than half the snaps in any game this year, despite the struggles of Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson. Keeanu Benton has played more than expected due to Cam Heyward’s injury, but even he still hasn’t reached the 50% snap mark this season. The Steelers' hesitancy to play their best players regardless of experience is a huge part of the problem for this team, and I don’t see it changing soon.

Kenny Pickett and the post-Ben conundrum

It’s a well-established fact that having a true franchise-caliber quarterback is the best way to consistently compete in the modern NFL. Sure, some teams have found ways to compete for and even win Super Bowls without a dominant QB. The Eagles rode the hot hand of Nick Foles to a title in 2017. Just a few years earlier, the Broncos rode an elite defense to a title with a washed-up Peyton Manning under center. 

Over the last five seasons though, the Super Bowl winners have been teams with an established star QB. The Steelers had one of those guys in Ben Roethlisberger for nearly 20 years, so replacing him after his retirement in 2021 was going to be a huge tipping point for the future of the team.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, the 2022 QB class was historically weak. They ultimately chose the player that had the highest floor and that they had seen develop up close at the University of Pittsburgh: Kenny Pickett. 

The results so far have been lacking, to say the least. In 19 games (18 starts), Pickett has thrown for 3,661 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions while completing 62% of his passes. In his defense, the offense he has played in has been dreadful in all facets of the game.

The problem ultimately is that he isn’t talented enough to put the offense on his back and elevate the guys around him. Would he be better with a new play caller and a better offensive line? Sure, but so would a more talented passer.

From Ryan Pawloski, contributor for Still Curtain: “The biggest gripe is with Kenny Pickett. Blame Matt Canada all you want but good players make plays no matter who their coach is. Canada is a problem, but Pickett is a massive issue that people seem to gloss over. Give him the rest of the year to prove himself and move on if he doesn't. The issue is the Steelers won't and it'll all start over next year.”

While I am not personally ready to write Pickett off, the Steelers' reluctance to change their philosophy may be a death sentence for him regardless. There is no reason to assume that even when Canada is not brought back next year that the next OC will be some guru. In the right system, Pickett’s ability as a playmaker could be harnessed to offset his issues in the pocket. I just wonder if it may need to happen elsewhere if it ever happens at all. 

The Steelers defense is living on the edge

For all the problems with this team, the defense is surely not one of them, right? Not quite. Yes, they are the primary reason they are 4-2 and on pace for yet another winning season. Look past the big plays and the dominant pass rush though, and the obvious flaws are plain as day.

They are giving up nearly 400 yards a game, including an abysmal 142.3 yards on the ground. They can’t cover above-average receivers if their life depended on it. Levi Wallace in particular has a case for being the worst cover corner in the league this year. 

The pass rush duo of T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith is propping up an otherwise poor starting lineup. Even Minkah Fitzpatrick has been reduced to being the cleanup guy for a bad secondary. The return of Cam Heyward in a few weeks could provide the spark they need in run defense, but that secondary is going to remain an issue unless changes are made. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has continued to say that Joey Porter Jr isn’t ready to start, but he can’t be worse than Wallace or even Patrick Peterson.

Until the coaching staff wakes up and realizes that guys like Wallace, Peterson, Chandon Sullivan, and Montravius Adams aren’t getting it done, this defense will continue to be a bend-don't-break defense instead of a true impact unit. They have top-end talent, but not finding the right guys around them continues to hold the team back. That’s something that GM Omar Khan must continue working on, but the coaches also need to start switching things up or the season could take a turn for the worse.

How bad is the Steelers offense, really?

Earlier in this article, I talked about how OC Matt Canada was just a symptom of a larger problem for the Steelers. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve a large portion of the blame for their lack of success, however. Here are just a few stats to paint the picture of just how bad his offense has been in his 40 games coached so far: 18.9 points per game scored, zero 400-yard games, only two games scoring at least 30 points, one 300-yard passing game, and 3.9 yards per rushing attempt. 

It’s hard to win football games with an offense that inept, and yet they have. In those 40 games that Canada has been the OC, they are 22-17-1. Obviously, that is largely due to the defense and clutch plays by Ben Roethlisberger and Kenny Pickett late in some of those games. Unfortunately, the fact that Canada hasn’t kept them from winning is a big reason this team is where it is right now. They have proof that they can win with him, so why change? 

Well, just because you can win with him doesn’t mean you have to. They are essentially turning up the difficulty level for no reason. It would be different if the Steelers had no weapons to work with, but the combination of George Pickens, Diontae Johnson, Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, and Jaylen Warren is far from a bad group.

Add in guys with potential like Calvin Austin lll and Darnell Washington, and talent can’t be used as an excuse. The worst part is that things have gotten worse each year under Canada in terms of points per game.

Barring some spectacular improvement, Canada will be gone after the year. That should be exciting, but will his replacement be much different? It will be hard to be worse, but the Steelers need somebody who can come in and change their approach entirely. Canada seemingly wants to get to third and manageable every series instead of just focusing on creating good opportunities for his playmakers. That style of offense may be what Tomlin wants, but it isn’t what works in the modern NFL.

Just look at the top offenses around the league and what they prioritize compared to the Steelers. The Dolphins are all about getting the ball to their playmakers in space, the 49ers use their wide zone run scheme to stretch the defense horizontally and take advantage of that with play action, and the Eagles use their dominant offensive line and Jalen Hurts as a runner to open up space for all their playmakers. 

What is the Steelers' identity on offense? Going three-and-out? Using motion for no reason? Pretending the middle of the field is lava? I’d believe it if Canada said any of those are what he is trying to do, and that’s the problem. Even if the player did everything perfectly, the upside is probably 27 points and 350 yards. If that’s the top end of what your offense is designed to do, good luck competing with the top teams in this league.

Where do the Steelers go from here? 

Despite all the glaring problems the Steelers have, hope is not lost. They still find themselves 4-2 this season and could easily continue their steak of winning seasons under Mike Tomlin. They are getting healthy again with Diontae Johnson back and Cam Heyward set to return in the next few weeks. 

Even though they refuse to play them the snaps they deserve, their rookie class is living up to the hype it had going into the year. They still have their stars on defense and a coach who is better than anybody at getting the most out of his players.

The direction this team goes in 2024 and beyond though is much less clear. If they continue to go down this path of stubbornness and old-school mentality, they will find themselves in the same purgatory they have been in. Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan certainly have their work cut out for them, but there are a few things in particular that need to change as soon as possible.

The defense may be back as the identity of the team, but it hasn’t led to more wins or better playoff success. It can still be the catalyst for the Steelers' success, but Tomlin can’t be afraid to bring in outside help to get the offense closer to the league average. He did it once with Todd Haley back in 2012, and there is no shortage of promising offensive minds around the league. So please, Mike. Pull the trigger this offseason on a new play caller and bring this team back to true contention.

Omar Khan is on the right track, but be wary of complacency

After two decades with Kevin Colbert at the helm, his retirement gave way for new general manager Omar Khan to try his hand at building up the roster. His first full offseason this year featured a more aggressive free agency than what is typical for the Steelers, a monster draft class that has lived up to the hype (when the coaches let them play), and an emphasis on the most important positions like the offensive line, edge rusher, and corner.

What remains to be seen is whether he will continue to be aggressive even if the Steelers finish the season with a strong record. The roster is still riddled with aging or lackluster veterans whom the coaching staff seems unwilling to bench in favor of the young talent Khan has given them. Can he find ways to add some younger talent to the trade market perhaps? Will he be aggressive again in the draft to find more talent at premium positions?

The answer to those questions will shape the future of the Steelers for years to come. Regardless of who the coaches are long term, the team still needs to build up around the stars they already have. I think he has what it takes to get it done, but I worry he could be handicapped by Mike Tomlin’s preferences.

Few coaches have the pull Tomlin does when it comes to roster management, but Khan has been with the Steelers even longer. It will take a joint effort to build a true title contender, but Khan must be willing to do what he thinks is best even if others disagree.

Final thoughts and optimism for the Steelers future

I know this article has been a lot of doom and gloom, general frustration, and negativity. Especially when the focus is on a 4-2 team that is likely to make the playoffs. Still, the expectations for the Steelers are different than most other franchises.

It isn’t good enough to finish above .500 every year or fight their way into the playoffs just to lose to a far superior team. This is the Steelers we are talking about, and fans know better than to be happy with what they have looked like for the better part of a decade.


Again, this team is truly broken in terms of their approach to building a contender. The wins are often miraculous, the losses convincing. Their voodoo late-game magic and defensive stars can hide it, but this team is average at best. Despite all of that, the fact that they can win consistently this way means they don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel. A few personnel changes, the coaching staff, and their philosophy could vault the Steelers back to where they belong.

As frustrating as this version of the Steelers can be, they at least make almost every game interesting until the end. They have a lot of heart, make a ton of wild plays, and keep chugging along no matter what. There is beauty in that as a fan of football, so try and enjoy the ride. But don’t settle for more of the same in the future, and don’t let anybody call you a spoiled fan for complaining. Oh, and #HereWeGoSteelers.

dark. Next. 3 Steelers who must be thrown out with the garbage. 3 Steelers who must be thrown out with the garbage